The futility of political activism – Kelly Reichardt delivers a compelling movie about a difficult subject, a group of eco-activists who commit an extreme act for a noble cause
Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature, is as formally audacious and visually compelling as any of her previous offerings, with the bonus of being a white-knuckle ride. The subject she mines here is that of the shady underworld of eco-activism, and true to her cool yet utterly engaged eye, Reichardt seeks no easy answers.
The film’s backstory is given to us in laconic dialogue with the economy and elegance that has become the trademark of the scripts she creates with Jon Raymond. She tantalisingly drip-feeds us information, and every scrap is crucial to the development of story and character. In this case, the characters being three disparate and clashing eco-activists who display more mistrust than affection for each other, but who are linked by a commitment to blow up a hydroelectric dam they believe is destroying the marine ecosystem in Oregon.
Josh (played by a wonderfully nervy Jesse Eisenberg) is the central activist. He dryly notes at the start of the film that the dam is “killing all these salmon so we can run our fucking ipods every second of our lives”. This is the closest we get to his motives and it is all we need. An alienated loner, Josh works on an organic communal farm. He is not likeable, but totally compelling and somewhat reminiscent of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï – both of them cool, detached anti-heroes with no past, only an eternal present. In an early scene we see Josh, walking alone in the woods, picking up a fallen bird’s nest and placing it delicately onto a branch. He is sensitive to nature but recognises the futility of his struggle – it’ll take more than saving a bird’s nest to fix the planet’s ills.
Josh’s accomplice, Dena (Dakota Fanning) is a slyly naïve middle-class college dropout who funds their actions by forking out ten grand for a boat and more again for the fertiliser needed to turn it into a floating bomb. The trio is rounded off with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a sardonic ex-marine who lives in hiding deep in the woods. He has spent time in jail and his insouciance hints that his part in the eco-activist cause stems more from a desire to live outside the law than from a deep love of nature. In one exchange with Dena he extols the virtues of fishing. She is clearly not interested in killing animals for sport and he tells her she should “try it before all the fish are gone”. There is a streak of nihilism to his position, which stealthily infects the rest of the film.
The first half of Night Moves is pure procedure. We are shown in obsessive detail the procuring of ingredients, the creation of a viable explosive and the rigorous but flawed planning. There is minimal talking, minimal action and huge amounts of tension. As the film builds to its inevitable climax, I couldn’t help wonder how Reichardt with her limited budget would film it. How would these characters blow up a dam? Reichardt constructs the build-up to this scene perfectly by using sound as much as image. On the way to their act of terror, Josh, Dena and Harmon float wordlessly through an apocalyptic Robert Adams landscape of dead, sunken trees to the sound of Jeff Grace’s haunting, hypnotic score. The moment in which the three activists realise they have done what they set out to do is expressed in their faces not in the action. It is a stunning piece of film-making.
The second half of the film shifts from procedural to psychological as we witness the repercussions of the trio’s destructive act. For me this shift was problematic. Up until the midway point, Josh, Dena and Harmon are mysterious, existential beings, but as their act of violence forces them to face their guilt, Reichardt asks us to read them in more conventional terms. I didn’t believe the extremes to which Josh is pushed in the second half, nor did I feel they were necessary.
Reichardt redeems this minor weakness however by providing an ending that is as odd as it is surprising. Josh escapes to California where he wanders into an outdoor store piled high with every imaginable tent, sleeping bag and camping stove. He is looking for a job and is given an application to fill out, but his hand hovers over the boxes in which he is expected to fill in his personal details. His personal details have escaped him along with his identity. The atmosphere of the store, despite its pretence as a place where one can prepare for the wilderness, is one of soulless consumption. The dream of escape becomes just another pleasant shopping experience.
Night Moves is a dark film. All the action takes place in low light, which echoes the murkiness of the characters’ morals and actions, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt conveys this grainy undercover world with a gorgeous, noir-like elegance. Just as Meek’s Cutoff is an anti-Western and Old Joy upends the idea of the ‘buddy movie’, so Night Moves plays with the thriller genre. At its heart is the question of terrorism as an essential, angry and raw act. To what lengths should you go to make your point? And at what point does political action become theatre? Reichardt does not attempt to answer these questions; she allows them to inform her characters and their decisions. The farmer for which Josh works has his own answer: “Look out the window,” he says, “It’s a lot slower but it works”. You can blow up dams or you can grow organic vegetables. Neither position feels very much like a solution. If I were to sum up the one overriding feeling I am left with after watching Night Moves, it is of sheer futility.
With intense performances as tightly coiled as the story, this film continues to unravel inside you long after the house lights have come up. It is beautiful in its precision and detail and disturbing in its ideas. Kelly Reichardt is an artist in total control of her medium and has delivered a piece of work that is not afraid to ask the big questions and equally unafraid to leave the answers hanging.